Monthly Archives: September 2013

Browns Bar & Brasserie

This week the Baberoo and I went to Browns Bar & Brasserie (5-11 Woodstock Road, OX2 6HA) to meet up with our NCT group. The first time the group went to Browns was in May, and our babies have doubled in age (and grown tenfold in cuteness) since that time. It’s amazing that they were ever so small back then!

Our meeting was in the late afternoon in order to work around various naptimes (oh, for a baby whose naptimes were predictable!), so it was high time for a sweet treat of some sort. I ordered the Chocolate Marquise (£3), which was described as a rich chocolate mousse, and rich it was. Extremely rich. I’d say it was more like a solid ganache than a mousse. I would probably order it as an after-dinner dessert than an afternoon pick-me-up. Luckily, my Nojito (non-alcoholic mojito) provided a refreshing counterpoint to the chocolate.

Browns Bar & Brasserie Chocolate Marquise

So, how does Brown’s stack up against my five criteria for baby-friendliness? In my reviews I look at menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding. For more information on how I rate eateries, see my About page.

Menu: The food is mainly British favourites and brasserie fare, which includes a fair number of dishes that require both hands free to eat, such as meat mains and substantial sandwiches. However, if you’re holding a baby and need to eat with one hand, try the salads or the flatbreads (although you’ll need to pre-cut those).

Space: We didn’t make a reservation this time as we did the first time we visited, so it was a bit of a surprise for the staff to find four baby carriages that needed to be seated at the same table. However, they were gracious enough to open up a closed section of the restaurant just for us so that we had room for our strollers. It also helped that it was a quiet time of day. I can imagine that at busier times there is a lot less room available; the tables aren’t squashed together but they aren’t that far apart either. Certainly you wouldn’t be able to get several prams in at one table during a busy time, but if you’re by yourself with the baby carriage it should be fine.

Browns Bar & Brasserie Seating Area

Ambiance: Whenever staff actually attended to us, they were friendly and one of them also chatted to the babies. However, it was quite a while between times when we saw any staff; I wasn’t sure whether this was because we were in a section that was closed, or whether they were very busy, or whether they had gauged (correctly, may I add) that we didn’t really need that much attention (although I’d have felt differently if I’d wanted to order lunch). The brasserie is full of potted plants and ferns, which were visually interesting for the babies. At one point two of the babies were playing on the floor, which shows how comfortable we felt putting them down in this space.

Browns Bar & Brasserie

Facilities: The baby-changing and disabled toilet has a pull-down changing table, but nowhere to put your bag. There’s enough room to get a stroller in, although it’s not huge. The lighting is a little dim and the room isn’t as fresh-smelling as one might hope. Too bad they don’t have one of their potted plants in there to add a little visual interest.

Browns Bar & Brasserie Baby-Changing Facilities

Feeding: We had breastfeeding, bottle-feeding, and food meals going on for our babies, and all were just fine. The chairs are the standard brasserie kind, which means they’re on the small side and maybe not terribly comfortable for breastfeeding, but there is also some bench seating if you prefer.

On my ratings scale Browns gets a 7.0 out of 10. Go during a non-busy time; if you have a whole group of babies and parents getting together definitely ring ahead so that they can make space to accommodate you.

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Aqua Babies at Temple Cowley Pool

(Updated August 2015: Temple Cowley Pool has now closed. All operations have been transferred to Leys Pools and Leisure Centre.)

I am not a born swimmer. I hate getting my face wet. I hate being under water. And even though I managed to make it through years of swimming classes as a child and finally ended up being a pretty good swimmer, I still have a primal fear of being submerged. I want my kid to feel better about being in the water than I did when I was young, so I started her early with Aqua Babies, a swimming programme for little ones from 4 to 18 months old at Temple Cowley Pool (Temple Road, OX4 2EZ)

Temple Cowley Pool sign

Aqua Babies (£5.50 per session) runs four times a week (Monday 10:15, Tuesday 11:15, Friday 11:15 and 14:00) and is bookable by phone on 01865 467124 or online. The 45-minute class includes both serious learning and fun time: the first part teaches babies essential skills such as going under water, finding the side of the pool and holding on, and kicking on both the stomach and the back. Then there are songs, splashing about, and time to play with toys. It’s a great way to get your baby used to the water, and the teachers (Carol and Brenda) are both excellent with little ones.

One of the best things about Aqua Babies is that you don’t have to sign up for a whole course. You just book an individual session each time, so you can choose different days of the week or skip some weeks or even call in to cancel a session if your baby happens to be taking an extra-long nap and you don’t want to wake them up. Compared to baby swimming lessons elsewhere, this is fantastic (I have friends in different cities who are literally hovering over their computers hitting the refresh button on the morning that swimming class bookings open). The freedom of choice is great, but do make sure that you book in advance because the classes sometimes are fully booked and they take a maximum of 12 babies.

Here’s how Aqua Babies at Temple Cowley Pool rates for baby-friendliness, based on my 8-point rating scale for activities. In my reviews I look at space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding; see my About page for more information on my ratings system.

Space: Before you enter the changing rooms, you’ll have to park your baby carriage in the designated space under the stairs in the lobby. There are usually several carriages under there, although I have seen parents take them into the changing rooms as well (there is a small fenced-off area in the changing room where you can put a lightweight foldable umbrella-type stroller, but nothing bigger). The changing rooms at Temple Cowley Pool have quite a lot of space and you will always find an area where you can spread out your swimming paraphernalia. However, the lockers (for which you need a pound coin) must be the worst lockers in the history of fitness facilities; usually I have to try three before I get one with a working key, which is hard to do while holding a baby and about five bags of necessities. They are clean, though, as is the rest of the changing room. There are two areas with a baby-changing table in each of them and a further four cubbyhole-type private changing rooms. Certainly, there is lots of space for you to navigate the seemingly-impossible task of getting a baby’s swimming costume on and off. There is also a Family changing room for parents who come together with their baby.

Temple Cowley Pool women's changing room

Ambiance: The learning pool is a very welcoming space and the teachers are lovely. Other parents are friendly. It feels like a fun place to be, an ambiance which other pools I’ve been to definitely lack. Everything revolves around the babies during a session, so it is very baby-friendly.

Facilities: There are two areas in the women’s changing room with baby-changing tables. They’re in high demand after an Aqua Babies session, so be prepared to wait for one if you need to use it. There’s also a regular pull-down baby-changing table in the regular women’s toilets, but you wouldn’t use it for changing into or out of a swimming costume.

Temple Cowley Pool baby-changing facilities

Feeding: I’ve seen mothers breastfeed their babies right in the changing room, and there’s also a space in the lobby with tables that are sometimes full of mothers breastfeeding or bottle-feeding their babies after a session. It has a very welcoming community-type feel to it. The benches in the changing room might be more comfortable than the non-adjustable bucket-seat chairs at the lobby tables, though.

Temple Cowley Pool tables in lobby

In total, Aquababies at Temple Cowley Pool rates a 6.75 out of 8. If you are looking for a way to get your little one used to the water at a very young age, I highly recommend it. And it is so much fun to watch your baby splash about in the pool!

I’d like to end this post with a shout-out to the Save Temple Cowley Pools & Fitness Centre campaign. Temple Cowley Pools (and the fitness centre, and Blackbird Leys pool as well) are currently under threat of closure by Oxford City Council. If you’d like to know more and sign the petition to keep it open, please visit the Save Temple Cowley Pools & Fitness Centre website and follow them on Twitter at @SaveTCP.  The pool is such an important resource for Cowley and surrounding areas that it would be a shame if it were to close.

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The Big Scream at the Phoenix Picturehouse

OK, so this isn’t an activity for your baby. It’s an activity for you, because you may not have taken yourself out for a while. Maybe months. Maybe you haven’t had an evening out yet since your baby was born and you don’t envision being able to have one for some time. That’s OK: you can still go to the movies during the day with the Big Scream at the Phoenix Picturehouse (57 Walton Street, OX2 6AE).

Big Scream is a club that screens newly-released films for parents and babies under one year old. If you don’t have a baby with you, you can’t get in! Films are a very reasonable £5 and are screened every Wednesday at 11:30 am. There’s no charge for joining the club but you need to do so when you attend your first screening; your baby’s first birthday is your membership expiry date.

Phoenix Picture House

The Baberoo and I have gone to the movies two weeks in a row at the Phoenix Picturehouse. Now, I have to explain that the Baberoo is a sympathy screamer; as soon as she hears a baby start crying she’s off on a crying jag herself, usually ten times louder than the instigator (I guess she takes the name Big Scream literally). She’s also pretty wriggly and doesn’t like to sit still, even if plied with toys, pacifiers, and snacks. So I had quite a job keeping her in the cinema for a two-hour film without her going ballistic. I realize now that I should have gone when she was much younger and was still able to nap as soon as she was in the dark. On both occasions I really envied those parents with younger babies who were just sleeping peacefully in their baby carriers or slings, while the parents sat back and relaxed. I should have come months ago. Let this be a lesson to you! Come early on in your baby’s life so you can actually enjoy the film. (That said, I did enjoy both films that I saw: ‘The Way Way Back’ and ‘About Time’.)

The Big Scream goes to some lengths to provide an enjoyable experience for parents and babies. So how does it rate on my baby-friendliness scale? My 8-point rating scale for activities looks at space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding. For more about the way I rate activities, see my About page.

Space: The space in the movie theatre itself is great; it’s large with very few people in it (probably about 20 parents in total each time I went) so there are lots of cushy seats to choose from. I tried to sit far away from other babies in case they set the Baberoo off! If you come with a baby carriage, you will need to leave it at the front of the cinema, under the screen, otherwise it presents a safety hazard. If your baby is sleeping in the stroller you’ll have to sit right up front with them parked in the approved parking area. I would suggest bringing your baby in a sling or carrier if you can: that way they can sleep on you wherever you choose to sit in the cinema. The space outside of the actual screening room is harder to manoeuvre; there is very little space in the front lobby and if more than six prams are in the space while parents are buying tickets, there’s no room to move around. There are four small stairs up to get to the movie theatre; there is a wheelchair lift that can also be used for buggies, but it hasn’t worked very well on both occasions when I have visited, so I suggest hauling your buggy up the stairs instead if you can.

Ambiance: The other parents are all very friendly – perhaps because everyone is so happy just to be getting out to the cinema – and everyone makes room for each other and helps each other manoeuvre the more difficult spaces. The staff are also friendly and helpful and will help you with your buggy. I hope that they don’t mind cleaning up after snacks, too: on our second visit we left quite a lot of rice cake and cheese strewn on the floor, I’m sorry to say! You can’t tell much from the picture below, but the cinema itself has a nice feel to it and the seats are very comfortable.

Phoenix Picture House seating

Facilities: The baby-changing facilities are in the disabled toilet in the lobby, which means you need to use the lift or stairs to get down there if your baby needs a change during the movie. The room requires a key to get in, which you can get from staff at the counter. They must have two sets of keys because while I was in there with the Baberoo someone else tried to get in! The space is clean and large enough to move your baby carriage around. There’s a pull-down changing table (no room for a bag) and an unusual tiger-striped toilet.

Phoenix Picturehouse changing facilities

Feeding: Almost everyone at the Big Scream is feeding their baby at some point during the movie, either by breast, bottle, or food snack. The seats are comfortable for you, but it’s too bad you can’t move the armrests out of the way so that there’s more room for the baby. Still, it’s a pretty good and welcoming space for any kind of feeding.

Taking all of these factors into account, I give the Big Scream at the Phoenix Picturehouse a 6.75 out of 8. Go while your baby is still young and can happily conk out for two hours. Enjoy the movie!

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Barefoot Books

Last week the Baberoo and I met up with my NCT friends and their babies at Barefoot Books (294 Banbury Road, OX2 7ED) for some tea and cake at the Storyteller’s Café. The bookshop’s ethos is global culture and diversity, and its independent publishing imprint reflects the founders’ love of storytelling. The café is a place where many parents come to chill out while the kids run around the bookshop singing along to animated videos on the big screen and playing in the storytelling area. It’s pretty much a children’s paradise.

On this visit, I ordered a chocolate brownie and pineapple juice (£5 all in). The Baberoo ate some cooked apple and toast brought from home. My brownie had a chilli kick to it, which was nice, although its cakey nature meant it was slightly on the dry side. The chocolate sauce that would have come with it might have mitigated this, but they had run out before I got there.

Brownie from Barefoot Books

So how does Barefoot Books rate for baby-friendliness? My rating system, which is explained fully on my About page, covers menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding. Here’s how Barefoot Books stacked up against my five criteria.

Menu: The Storyteller’s Café menu includes sandwiches, quiches, salads, soups, and other lunch dishes, as well as all-day breakfast, cakes, and other treats. There’s also a kids’ lunch pack with kid-friendly items, although I think probably most of the menu items would be enjoyed by children. You’ll be able to find several items that you can eat with one hand while holding a baby. There are also lots of high chairs (the most I’ve ever seen in one establishment – and they are the lovely Stokke Tripp Trapp ones) that you can use for your baby if you want to be hands-free.

Space: On most of the occasions I’ve been here, the place has been jam-packed with parents and children. You won’t have any trouble manoeuvring through the bookshop, but once you get to the café you may find yourself trying to squeeze through rather tight spaces. Since it’s such a family-friendly place there are usually lots of baby carriages everywhere, but if you’re stuck people will move their carriages out of the way for you. Our NCT group chose to meet during the school run hour, which meant that we enjoyed more space to ourselves since there were fewer families there. Bonus!

Barefoot Books Storyteller's Cafe

Ambiance: Colourful, fun, and geared towards children. Activities abound in the bookstore, including storytime, arts and crafts activities, and the animated video wall that kids can sing along to. There’s also an events calendar with bookable events such as pilates (for parents), ballet, tap, and yoga (for children), and sessions in French, Spanish, and German, many of which take place in the upstairs studio. The staff are friendly and obviously very welcoming towards children. It’s all so bright and interactive that you may find it grating after a while – or perhaps I’m the only parent who’s allergic to too much colour all in one place – but the kids will love it. I think as far as babies are concerned, the child-friendly stuff isn’t as attractive to them now as it will be in a year or two.

Activity Station at Barefoot Books

Facilities: The baby-changing facilities are just as colourful as the rest of the store, which makes a change from the usual dull gray or cream fittings. There’s enough space to get your carriage in comfortably, and there’s a toilet for parents to use. The room has an unusual, highly-curved changing table, which works well to prevent exploratory rolling. There’s natural light from a window and the room smells fresh, although the bin needs to be emptied more frequently; on this visit it was overflowing.

Barefoot Books baby-changing facilities

Feeding: I’ve breastfed the Baberoo here on a few occasions and have felt right at home doing so, although the chairs aren’t terribly comfortable. There are comfier benches in the storytelling area, although you may not get to use them if there’s an activity going on. This is the kind of place where you might see several other mothers breastfeeding at the same time as you, so it’s very welcoming. I’ve also fed the Baberoo with snacks from home without feeling guilty for not buying her food from their cafe, although when she’s old enough and hungry enough to eat from a kids’ menu she’ll have some excellent choices here.

Barefoot Books gets an 8.0 out of 10 for baby-friendliness, but I would still say it’s more geared towards children rather than babies. However, if you, like me, are encouraging your child’s love of books early, you’ll have a nice time perusing their bookshelves and finding stories to read to your little one.

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University of Oxford Botanic Garden

The forecast for tomorrow is 16 degrees with rain all day, a sure sign that autumn is right around the corner. Today, however, was a scorching 27 degrees. The Baberoo and I took advantage of summer’s last hurrah by visiting the University of Oxford Botanic Garden (Rose Lane, OX1 4AZ).

Riotous colours

We’ve been big fans of the botanic garden since the Baberoo was only three months old. I first took her there at the end of March, when the hellebores were nearly the only thing blooming and the rain and my baby-induced sleeplessness made it seem as if the winter would never end. We’ve been going back ever since on our annual pass, which is the best £15.50 I’ve ever spent (and it gets you into Harcourt Arboretum too!). Every few weeks we’ve gone back to see the changes in the botanical season, from tulips to peonies to dahlias. And that’s only the herbaceous borders: there’s also a fabulous vegetable garden, fruit trees, seven glasshouses, a rock garden, a bog garden, and the new Merton Borders, which feature an ornamental, environmentally sustainable display using direct sowing of seeds.

Merton Borders

Today the vegetable garden was a pretty amazing sight, with corn, beans, rhubarb, and squash all looking like they were at their peak (we missed the giant pumpkin, though, as I discovered to my chagrin when we got home). The Merton Borders were full of bees (a good thing!) and blooming splendidly; I remember seeing the area in March and there was nearly nothing in it. I can’t believe it’s the same garden! There was some riotous colour in the herbaceous borders, and the bog garden – where we sat for an alfresco lunch – was so lush that you could hardly see the water for all the plants.

Corn

Not only is the botanic garden a treat for all the senses, it’s baby-friendly too. Here’s how it stacks up against my four criteria for baby-friendliness (space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding – see my About page for a full explanation of my criteria for rating attractions that aren’t eateries).

Space: There’s an entrance for prams and wheelchairs at the side of the garden on Rose Lane. There’s plenty of space in the two outdoor gardens (the Walled Garden and the Lower Garden), so you can wheel your baby carriage around as much as you like. It’s a bit more difficult getting into the glasshouses; the conservatory (which houses the citrus plants) has plenty of room inside but it’s difficult to get in the doors; usually I need someone to help me because you need to open both doors to fit a stroller in. Happily, today they were already open because of the hot weather. The other glasshouses are more difficult; a larger pram might not fit the width of the very narrow corridors (especially since there are huge plants coming at you from either side), and if you do fit, there’s no chance of anyone being able to pass your carriage in the space so you might have to do some backing up. The rose garden facing the High Street isn’t accessible to strollers unless you have wheels that can roll on gravel; mine can’t. To be fair, I don’t think that this is actually part of the University of Oxford Botanic Garden so isn’t managed by them – but when you’re going for the experience of a garden, you don’t care about technicalities like this: you just want to see the roses!

Ambiance: Couldn’t be nicer, at any time of the year. Whenever I visit I marvel at how quickly things change and how beautiful each season is. The staff at the reception are very welcoming and helpful, and so are the garden staff if you happen to meet any of them working outside. Even the ducks are friendly!

Borders

Facilities: There is a baby-changing facility in the disabled toilet. It’s spacious and has a pull-down changing table. It’s clean and presentable, although there’s no place to put your changing bag.

Baby-changing

Feeding: There are plenty of benches to sit on throughout the garden, but you can also bring a blanket and sit on the grass with your baby. We dined alfresco on a bench today (with regular food, although I’d have been happy to breastfeed as well). If you go in the winter it might be too cold for breastfeeding, though!

As an attraction, the Botanic Garden is a wonderful resource and a haven of peace and quiet away from the crowds in the city centre, and a perfect place to bring your baby to relax. I give it a 7.0 out of 8. If you love gardens, treat yourself to an annual pass and go throughout the year.

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Rhymetime at the Oxford Central Library

Lately I’ve been taking the Baberoo out to many more activities around Oxford, all designed for babies and their parents. We have enjoyed Rhymetime at the Oxford Central Library (Westgate, OX1 1DJ) so much that we go almost every week.

As a veteran attender of library activities myself (my mom started bringing me to storytime at the Ottawa public library when I was just a few months old), I was really looking forward to watching the Baberoo experience the reading-aloud and interactivity that I always loved so much. I’d already brought her to the library many times to borrow books, but I only started taking her to Rhymetime when she was about six months old.

Library books

As the name suggests, Rhymetime is a session of chanting and singing well-known nursery rhymes and songs. I say well-known, but I actually only knew about half of them and was somewhat dismayed on our first visit to find myself humming along, pretending to know the words to songs such as ‘Horsie, Horsie’, ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’, and ‘Wind the Bobbin Up’. I chalk my ignorance up to the fact that we’ve got totally different tunes and chants in Canada so I didn’t learn these when I was growing up! (And I bet you don’t know the words to ‘Pomme de reinette et pomme d’api’.)

Rhymetime takes place twice a week at the Oxford Central Library, from 10:30-11:00 am on Wednesdays (led by two library staff members) and 10:30-11:00 am on Thursdays (led by volunteers), and is for children under 5 and their parents. The Baberoo was certainly not the youngest child there – I’ve met babies who were three months old when they came to their first session. Both sessions have the same content: rhymes and songs (but no storytelling), including some that have the kids shaking jingle bells and noisemakers, as well as playing with animal puppets.

So how does Rhymetime rate for baby-friendliness? On this blog I’m rating all non-food-related activities on a scale of 8 points rather than my usual 10-point rating scale, since out of the five criteria (menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding), there’s no menu. For a full explanation of my criteria see my About page.

Space: Rhymetime takes place in the dedicated under-5s room in the children’s section of the library, which is spacious and well laid out. There are usually more than 25 children (plus 25 to 30 parents) at each session, so the room really fills up. The space has a lot of benches, beanbags, and chairs, but by the time everyone has squeezed in, it’s standing room only for latecomers. My suggestion is to arrive a bit early so you avoid the queue for the lifts, which can be quite long right before a session begins. Baby carriages can be parked within the other room of the children’s section.

Oxford Central Library children's department

Ambiance: Colourful, interactive, and loud! The presenters are very welcoming and so are the other parents. It’s a fun environment and kids love to participate. In addition, each time we’ve attended I’ve noted how much the session is enjoyed by the presenters themselves. This is the kind of activity that keeps families coming back for more; there are many devoted regulars.

Facilities: The Oxford Central Library has a baby-changing facility in the lobby outside the Children’s department; it requires an entry code, which is obtainable from any member of staff. It’s a serviceable room with a handy desk to put your bag on and a pull-down changing table. The room is long and narrow, which means you may not be able to reach the sink until you’ve put the changing table back up again. The way the room is laid out in relation to the regular toilets is somewhat awkward, so you need to make sure you have opened the exit door before you wheel your baby carriage into the tiny entrance space; otherwise you may find yourself stuck!

Oxford Central Library baby-changing facilities

Feeding: I have fed the Baberoo in the library (not actually during Rhymetime, but afterwards when the crowds have cleared) and can say that it’s a very welcoming space for breastfeeding. You also have your choice of seating (benches, chairs, or beanbags) so you can make yourself as comfortable as possible.

Rhymetime at the Oxford Central Library scores a 7.25 out of 8 for baby-friendliness; it’s a fantastic activity and I urge any parent with children under 5 to try it out. We are now regulars!

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